You may not know his name, but Alain Tannier is a major player in the paddock. A volunteer marshal with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest for nearly 40 years, the Le Mans native is retiring today from the World Endurance Championship (FIA WEC) as pits manager. This die-hard fan of motorsport will remain very much involved by continuing to use his experience to benefit ACO events as well as freelance projects.
How did you come to work with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO)?
As a kid, I used to cut out newspaper articles about the 24 Hours. I went for the very first time in 1962. I was 11 at the time and that was all she wrote. I acquired my ACO member card in 1971: a very long-term loyalty card (laughs, Ed.)! Thereafter, my career as a marshal began in 1979 at the track and then in the pits starting in 1981.
What motivated you to join this adventure, all the way to becoming one of the pillars of the ACO's volunteer marshals?
I was always interested in the organization. I wanted to get involved to help, advise, share and make sure everything went well. To highlight the marshals so they are proud of what they do is very important to me. It has become my second family! I claim the status of 100% volunteer because we are there to have fun.
To highlight the marshals so they are proud of what they do is very important to me.
Thanks to an understanding boss (maintenance technician with a Le Mans company, Ed.), I was lucky enough to be able to take time off. After April, everyone knew not to bother me! I was also able to retire pretty early to get involved full-time. Above and beyond the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the FIA WEC, I participate in ACO races (24 Hours Moto, Karting, Ed.) and in other disciplines (F1 Grand Prix of Monaco, French GP, WTCC, Ed.). We are avid fans first and foremost!
Why feel so attached to this position of pit marshal?
The pits are the heart of the circuit, where everything plays out and where you can rub elbows with the heroes of Endurance racing. It's a big beehive that comes alive with the teams, engineers, marshals, media…We are there to admire their work and orchestrate the organizing of this whole little world. It's not secret I'm not very technically-minded. I'm about people, those behind the scenes, relationships.
The pits are the heart of the circuit, where everything plays out and where you can rub elbows with the heroes of Endurance racing.
You are called the Sheriff in the paddock. Behind this well-meaning nickname, please describe your role itself.
Henri Pescarolo gave me that nickname and it stuck! My mission? To recall and apply the regulations and ensure the safety of everyone involved. My colleagues and I manage a team of nearly 200 individuals at Le Mans, from the marshals in charge of safety to those who enter information.
In addition to the work on the ground, there is a whole undertaking of preparation early on to organize the planning, recruit volunteer marshals, provide training, consider developments related to new regulations. We are never idle! With Le Mans, the FIA WEC, the ELMS...it could take me two days per week the entire year.
What relationship do you have with teams?
It has always gone well. There is mutual respect among us, no matter the size of the team. When I announced I was retiring from the FIA WEC, I received many well-wishes from all the teams. I have a great deal of memories of passionate team managers, engineers and mechanics going through extreme lows and highs. Tragic developments like the lead Toyota's retirement in 2016 tell the story: the technical staff had a very hard time getting over that.
As for the regulations, the teams know we are there to help them and that everyone is on the same side. If some are penalized, others will be if they make the same mistake. The key is to treat everyone equally and fairly, with no free passes. That is how we earn respect. I like to say I am there to help them win properly.
Over the years, the pits have evolved - from the sporting angle but also in terms of safety - could you explain that?
Thirty years ago, the pits were kind of a free-for-all: there were 50 people around the cars, journalists everywhere, policemen for safety...today, it has all been professionalized considerably. The significance of the pits is no longer the same for the teams, they're now strategic where you have to be the fastest and everything has to be optimized. We need to be aware of the speed of cars, starts, the mechanics' ballet around cars...everything has changed and the number of people in pit lane has drastically decreased.
Incidents are also a factor in the evolution of the regulations. I think of the cameraman mowed down by an Audi in 2010, Allan McNish's accident in 2011 and Larbre Compétition's fire at Shanghaï in 2013. Zero risk doesn't exist but maximum prevention is a must.
What do you remember of the five years spent traveling the world with the FIA WEC?
I went international in 2004 with the Le Mans Series then the FIA WEC in 2012. It's different at Le Mans because we arrive with a small team and therefore have more responsibility. It was a new challenge and we had to adapt to other organizations and marshals on-site. No matter the circuit, it has always gone well.
It was so wonderful to go to these countries and meet people just as enthusiastic about motorsport. I keep up with things on social media and stay in contact with Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican people and others. There are so many great stories, unforgettable memoreis. There is a special place in my heart for Japan and its extraordinary atmosphere. There is a sort of inexplicable zen that makes the work so pleasurable. Maybe Mount Fuji has special powers!
Why bring to a close your career as a volunteer marshal by ending your involvement in the FIA WEC? Have you decided to hang up your Sheriff's badge?
At 66 years of age, it's time to slow things down and pass the baton by training young marshals. The FIA WEC is actively involved. We are busy about a dozen weekends of the year with trips with packed schedules, jet lag. Going in, you think of enjoying the trip but it's no cake walk and a lot of work awaits us on the other side of the world. We get to the circuit at 7:00 in the morning and leave at 10:00 at night: those are some busy days! But I'm not giving everything up. I will continue at Le Mans and will do some freelancing as needed. I've planned to retire completely in 2023, the year of the 24 Hours of Le Mans' 100th anniversary. That's the way to go, don't you think?